Evaluation of Pelletized Poultry Litter to Improve Specialty Crop Production in West Virginia

Progress report for ONE21-388

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,944.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2024
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Candace DeLong
West Virginia University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:


This project evaluates the feasibility of producing a value-added fertilizer from WV-sourced poultry litter. To determine feasibility, we will conduct fertilizer response trials and evaluate pathogen reduction from the pelleting process. Response trials will be completed on the farms of our four partnership growers located around the state. We will also distribute bags of fertilizer to local farm and garden outlets to determine the product's marketability. Outreach will be focused on specialty crop growers and the poultry industry in the state. 

We are pursuing this data for two possible benefits: one to determine if a pelletized product could be an additional profit-producing outlet for our poultry producers, and two to determine if the product can be of use to high tunnel growers and gardeners – this could potentially distribute the high-phosphorus litter away from the high-phosphorus soils of West Virginia’s poultry-producing regions


Poultry litter is an excellent nutrient source for crop production. Especially for regions with phosphorus-deficient soils. A common analysis of poultry litter would yield nutrient levels of approximately 50-75-40-6 per ton, representing nitrogen, phosphate, potash, and sulfur. These analyses can be extremely variable depending on feed source, bedding used, the length of time to raise the birds, and the type of bird raised.

Commercial poultry production in West Virginia is in two geographic regions, the Eastern Panhandle and the Greenbrier Valley. In the northeastern portion of the state broiler production is the dominant industry. In 2019 WV ranked 17th in broiler production, totaling 75 million birds produced. Most of this production is based in a five-county area, with Hardy County, producing approximately half of the total production. The topography of the region is described as ridge and valley. This farmland topography typically leads to a large amount of cropland that has soil-test phosphorus levels in the excessive fertility range, contributing to excess phosphorus runoff. 

In our Northeast SARE Partnership Grant, we requested funding to pelletize West Virginia poultry litter and evaluate its nutritional composition before and after pelletizing. Once the litter is in a pelletized form its bulk density decreases, which allows for more efficient transportation. Poultry litter is an inconsistent product, due to the location of waterers and feeders, the nutrient levels may differ throughout the poultry house. A pelletizing process allows for a more uniform consistency of the product.

This project seeks to facilitate nutrient removal from areas of high phosphorus concentration (locations with high levels of poultry production) to lesser areas of concentration (areas without excess phosphorus from poultry production) while providing solutions for poultry growers who need to dispose of the litter, and specialty crop growers who need the litter for fertility. We plan to promote the pelleted material to high tunnel growers and home gardeners.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Chico Ramirez and Mary Oldham - Producer
  • Hal Kreher - Technical Advisor
  • Mike Kwasnaski - Producer
  • Virginia Lamaster - Producer
  • Charles Moyer
  • Remington Perkins - Producer
  • Pam West - Producer
  • Jason Whitacre - Producer
  • Tyler Garrett - Producer


Materials and methods:

Pellet Evaluation

Poultry litter was collected from a broiler-producing farm in Hampshire County, West Virginia. This litter was evaluated for moisture content and then transported to Kreher Farms in New York to be pelletized. The litter was evaluated for changes in bulk density, percentage of crumbles or litter not remaining in pelleted form, pellet retention, durability, and stability during storage and transportation. Pelleted poultry litter from an operation in New York will be evaluated in a side-by-side comparison with West Virginia-generated pellets. 

In our initial project proposal, we discussed pelletizing two litter types, broiler litter from the Eastern Panhandle, and turkey litter from the Greenbrier Valley. We evaluated turkey litter from several farms in the Greenbrier Valley, but could not find a litter source with a low enough moisture content to go through the pelletizing process at Kreher Farms. Small bags of poultry litter were transported to Kreher Farms to test out the pelletizing process before we transported the full amount, and these trial trips revealed the turkey litter would not be suitable for the pelletizing process. For this reason, we only pelletized one type of litter and we are starting our project with only 3 tons of pelletized litter.

After the litter was pelletized and transported back to West Virginia, our team members scooped and weighed the litter into 40-pound bags that were distributed to our four partner farms: Mountain Harvest Farm in Morgantown, PowderKeg Farm in High View, West Farm in Lewisburg, and Charm Farm in Beverly. Laboratory analysis was completed to determine the nutrient composition of the pelletized litter. Each bag has a product label and a QR code for collecting feedback. Litter Bag Info Sheet

Evaluation of Marketing Product

Half of our generated pelleted litter fertilizer is reserved for a marketing evaluation that will take place this coming spring. We have enough litter remaining in 40-lb bags to compete another fertility trial and a marketing evaluation. Once the litter from the remaining trials is allocated to each farm, the remaining litter will be distributed to lawn and garden stores located nearby the county agents participating in this project. The bags of pellets will be offered for sale during the spring planting season with a QR code label attached to each bag. Currently, the 40-pound bags of litter have a custom-made label with the product information along with a QR code for collecting feedback on the product via an online survey tool. In addition to the QR code survey, we plan to ask the retail store managers to share sale data and any feedback provided by customers. We may also supply the litter to WVU Extension master gardeners in exchange for feedback.

Poultry Litter Pellet Fertility Response Trials

An initial cabbage fertility response trial was planted at Mountain Harvest Farm in Morgantown, WV in 2022. We have changed our target crop to cabbage because of the faster maturity times and ease of harvesting and data collection. WVU Extension has shared a great deal of information on season extension and winter growing and we see the switch to cabbage as our target crop as another way to share these techniques with the producers in the state. Three response rates (75, 150 and 225 lbs N) and a control were evaluated in January of 2023. The harvested cabbage plants were evaluated for total and marketable yield(weight) and sap nitrate concentration was determined by chopping the cabbage wrapper leaves and squeezing the juices onto a nitrate meter. 

After analyzing the cabbages harvested from the initial trial, we determined the rates applied to the cabbages were much higher than necessary and the amounts could be lowered for the fertility trials planted in spring of 2023.

In April of 2023, cabbages were planted at four farms across the state: Mountain Harvest Farm in Morgantown, WV, Powderkeg Farms in High View, WV, West Farms in Lewisburg, WV, and Charm Farm in Beverly, WV. In May, the ANR Agents involved with the project spread the pelleted poultry litter around the cabbage plants using 4 different treatments: 75 lb N/A; 100 lb N/A; 150 lb N/A; and a control with no fertilizer. At Mountain Harvest Farm in Morgantown, WV three additional treatments, 75 Lb N/A, 100 Lb N/A and 150 Lb N/A of a comparable commercial poultry litter from Kreher Farms in NY were added.  The rate of pelleted litter needed was converted from the rate per acre to the amount of square feet in each replication. The applied amounts were then doubled to account for 50% organic N mineralization. For the 75 lb/A treatment 5.4 lbs of litter was applied equally throughout the planting space, for the 100 lb/A treatment 7.2 lb was applied and for the 150 lb/A treatment 16.2 lb was applied.  

The cabbages were planted in 2 rows within a 30' wide garden bed, cabbages were planted every 18." Each farm needed approximately 480 feet of row space, the farm in Morgantown needed additional space due to the extra three treatments of Kreher Farm pelletized litter. It was requested that the farms left the ground bare; however, West Farm in Greenbrier County did apply plastic to the rows. A total of 20 cabbages plants were needed for each treatment, and we included the 4 treatments listed above and replicated each four times for a total of 320 plants needed for each trial. To alleviate any discrepancy between growing methods or seeds, we grew the cabbages ourselves and delivered them to each farm. The planting dates for each farm varied due to slight differences in climate at each location.

Data Collection 

Cabbages were harvested in July and August depending on the farm and cabbages were cleaned, the outside leaves and stems were removed, then the cabbages were weighed, and the sap nitrate concentration was determined using a nitrate meter.  

Evaluation of Pathogen destruction during Pellet Production

To determine the microbial composition of WV poultry litter and the resulting litter after it has been pelleted viable counts of bacteria will be cultured on selective media. Target organisms include Salmonella sp. and Escherichia coli. The 20 gram of poultry litter samples will be mixed 100 ml of buffered peptone water and stomached for 2 minutes. The filtered solution will be spread-plated onto XLT-4 and MacConkey agars for Salmonella and E.coli, respectively. Typical colonies from the plates will be further identified using latex agglutination test and multiple-channel biochemistry test such as Enterotube II and API 20e. We are currently awaiting these results.

Statewide Survey of WV Gardeners and Farmers

A survey will be completed to determine the level of interest in adding pelletized poultry litter to gardens, pasture, or hay fertility programs. Using our WVU soil testing lab database, we will survey 11,000 customers using Qualtrics software to determine their interest in using a West Virginia-based organic fertilizer and how much these growers are willing to pay for this value-added product. Qualtrics survey results will be analyzed and presented to poultry growers and poultry integrators in the two poultry growing areas in WV.



Research results and discussion:

The poultry litter was easily applied to the treatment areas. It was weighed out in plastic bags labeled for each treatment and spread with cups. Growers might find this ease of use to their advantage. The growers who worked with us on this project were happy to receive the litter. 

We measured the weight (lb) and the sap nitrate (ppm) of the cabbages planted at four different farms across the state. Due to the availability of help and other extension agent duties at the time the cabbages were all processed in slightly different manners. Unfortunately, the harvesting and data processing fell within the same time frame as the county fair and state fair for all agents involved. The cabbages in Monongalia County, Hampshire County and Greenbrier County were all harvested and processed immediately afterward, but the cabbages in Barbour County had to be frozen before they could be processed. This could account for some differences in the data.

This data has not yet gone through a full statistical analysis, but some assessments can be made from the graphs below.

The sap nitrate ratings of the harvested cabbages did not show the clear differences we expected (Graph 1 attached document). This could be a result of previous fertilizer applications to the treatment site or differences in soil types; however, we suspect the reliability of the sap nitrate meter may also be at fault. The biggest concern is the control treatment may not be statistically different from the other treatments indicating that the litter did not provide extra nitrogen. However, when observing the cabbage weights, there does seem to be a difference between the control and the litter treatment (Graph 2 attached document). According to the guide that accompanied the nitrate meter we used, at mid-heading stage, when our cabbages were harvested, the desired Sap N rating should be between 700-900 ppm. All the cabbages harvested were well above this amount.   This indicates the soil where the cabbages were planted did not need additional nitrogen in the first place. We did ask the participating farms to plant the cabbages in new fields that had not been fertilized, but this type of field may not have been available.

At Mountain Harvest Farm in Monongalia County, we trialed poultry litter from Kreher Farms (labeled NY litter in the graphs) in addition to the litter from our WV broiler farm. This litter had slightly higher rates of Sap N (ppm) but these rates were similar to our WV litter (Graph 3 attached document). The cabbages grown with the WV litter also had similar weights to the cabbages grown with NY (Graph 4 attached).


Graphs - SARE Report Jan 2024


Research conclusions:

From the time the grant was awarded in 2021, until now, we have been gaining information that will hopefully lead to a positive change for poultry growers, specialty crop farmers, and nutrient management. In 2022, we evaluated a pelletized poultry litter from a broiler farm in West Virginia, we also weighed and bagged that litter for distribution to four specialty crop growers around the state. Our specialty fertilizer was used on an initial cabbage trial at Mountain Harvest Farm in Monongalia County. This trial was used to determine the final fertilizer rates for the cabbage trials we completed at four different farms around West Virginia in 2023.  

Although, our results from the 2023 fertility trial were not as clear as we hoped. The fertilizer showed similar results to a commercial litter purchased from a New York facility that also sells pelletized litter as a fertilizer. We again plan to repeat this fertility trial in 2024, to hopefully solidify our results. In addition to the fertility trial, we have several tasks to complete before November of 2024. These tasks include marketing our product to specialty crop growers and gardeners around the state, and asking for their feedback on whether they would purchase a product like our fertilizer, and if the fertilizer was easy and comfortable to use. We plan to share this data with poultry growers around the state, and with specialty crop growers. 

Our initial query has not yet been met, but the data we collected this year is pointing us in the right direction. Our research could lead turn a byproduct into a specialty product that will hopefully spread beyond the already phosphorus-inundated Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
3 On-farm demonstrations

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers participated
20 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

WVU Extension has a unique opportunity to deliver program content to a diversified list of clientele and residents of West Virginia. The results of this poultry pellet study will be delivered to both a state and national audience that encompass 4 main target demographics. Poultry growers, high tunnel growers, backyard gardeners, and extension professionals.

A presentation on the project’s findings will be delivered to The West Virginia Poultry Association during their annual convention which is held in the last week of July each year in Moorefield WV. The association consists of producers, industry associates, and others around the state with affiliation to the poultry industry. The association currently consists of 350 members.

There are currently over 1200 high tunnels in WV. These producers grow using many different production models. Many high tunnel producers, especially those that grow for farmers’ markets, choose to grow using organic management practices whenever possible. The opportunity to incorporate a local poultry litter pellet into their production model will be appealing for many of these producers. In order to showcase the project and its findings we will utilize our vegetable producers in the study and will hold a field day at each of the four partner farms. These producers are located in a manner that allows us to reach WV producers on a regional aspect in the north, south, central and Potomac Valley region of WV.  A presentation will also be delivered at the WV Small Farms Conference. This conference is attended by over 400 individuals representing producers, industry leaders, and extension professionals from West Virginia and surrounding states.

Lastly, a poster presentation will be submitted to the National Association of County Agricultural Agents for display at the National Meeting in July of 2024. 


January 2024 Update:

Our outreach plans still match what is listed above. Now that we have data collected from the fertility trial, and marketability data will be collected this spring, we will be ready to share this information with local farmers and a broader audience.  

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

January 2024 Update:

The specialty crop farmers who participated in the study are now aware of the poultry litter fertilizer source, and have used it successfull.

Project Outcomes

4 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

With this project we are still working on a hopeful change in practices, and promoting an additional income source to poultry growers from a current byproduct. The marketability assessment we will complete this spring in addition to collecting a second year of fertility trial data will be enough data to tackle our outreach plan and reach growers around the state. From our data this year, we have shown our local fertilizer provides similar yield results to a commercial product that is available nationwide. 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

From our data collection in 2023, we need to refine our methods for assessing nitrogen. The cabbage weights provided useful data, however, the Sap N readings from the nitrate meter seemed unreliable when they would be expected to somewhat mirror the weight data. 

For the repeated fertility trial in 2024, we plan to add additional data by sending the cabbage wrapper leaves away for nitrogen testing. We also plan to consult additional experts on the best way to obtain a nitrogen reading. 

We have not yet answered the questions fully. The usefulness in our data will depend on its marketability.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.